“Songwriting is what drew me into music. The craft and process of putting together a song seems both exciting and magical” – Peter Gabriel
In 2010, the first part of Peter Gabriel’s grand song-swap came into being. Scratch My Back featured a dozen songs from the back catalogues of some of the greatest songwriters of the modern era. I’ll Scratch Yours is the response. Bearing in mind the A-list calibre of the artists, it’s rather incredible that all but two artists chose to reciprocate.
The sound might change, but the message remains clear. The song is everything.
The token dancefloor moment on I’ll Scratch Yours arrives with Byrne – who played every instrument on the track – relaying the song’s in-built confusion and paranoia with all the off-kilter urgency we’ve come to expect from him. A prime slice of slinky, straight-off-the-bone 21st-century disco loveliness.
Bon Iver – Come Talk To Me
We’ve come to expect mystery-draped excellence from the Justin Vernon-fronted Bon Iver. The Wisconsinite’s copy-book remains blot-free with this extraordinarily spiritual reading of the opening track from the 1992 Gabriel album Us. Twinkly banjo, rising drums and Vernon’s supernatural voice combine to take our souls to great heights.
The sweetness of Spektor’s voice and the brightness of her piano initially belie the inherent vulnerability of this powerful work, originally sung by Gabriel and Sinead O’Connor on 1992’s Us. But this is to Spektor’s advantage; it makes the personal unravelling – “And the darkness still has work to do / The knotted cord’s untying” – all the more shocking.
The power-pop of Gabriel’s 1980 original has been substituted with a radically different treatment by The Magnetic Fields founder and leader, albeit one that could claim a similar vintage. Merritt conjures up the ghosts of three-decades-old electronic pop – John Foxx, early Human League – for a version that, in keeping with the song’s theme, aptly sounds robotic. Alien even.
When it came to selecting which track to cover, longtime Gabriel acolyte Arthur knew exactly what to reach for. Shock The Monkey was the first 45 he owned and knowing it so intimately allowed him to strip it back to its raw essence. This intense reading was captured live in one take.
A Newman-isation of one of Gabriel’s biggest and brightest hits would always take leaps of both faith and imagination, but Randy comes up trumps, stripping the song right down to its chassis before rebadging it with use of his trademark rolling piano and that irony-soaked, world-weary voice.
Recorded just before the band’s co-leaders Win Butler and Régine Chassagne celebrated the birth of their first child, the Montrealers tasked themselves with reimagining Gabriel’s first top ten hit as a solo artist. Although it’s the cover version most faithful to the original on I’ll Scratch Yours, the employment of their trademark Civil War drums is an effective enhancement, further heightening the song’s ageless message about the futility of war.
The most contemplative track on Gabriel’s bestselling album So, Mercy Street – referencing the troubled life of poet Ann Sexton – requires a narrator of great empathy and compassion. Guy Garvey’s warm and welcoming voice has this in spades and comes underpinned by a perfectly poised arrangement. Some truly beautiful vocal harmonies too.
“It’s getting hard to breathe / It’s getting so hard to believe.” The co-writer of Heroes, covered by Gabriel on Scratch My Back, returns the favour with his disturbing interpretation of this treatise on fear. The original’s melodic folkiness has been kidnapped, replaced by claustrophobic electronica and Eno’s chilling spoken-word recitation.
Leslie Feist had previously sung this duet live alongside Gabriel, filling the Kate Bush role on his North American tour of last year. This time the Canadian takes the lead vocal to compelling effect, enhanced by the soul-drenched voice of Taylor Kirk and the skin-pricking violin of Mika Posen, two-thirds of Ontarian folkists Timber Timbre.
“It’s crazy,” confirms Gabriel’s long-standing engineer Richard Chappell. “As bold a cover as I’ve ever heard.” Surely I’ll Scratch Yours’ most radical reinvention, Reed dispenses with the bucolic skip of the original’s West Country setting, instead opting for a tough, metallic overhaul straight from the mean streets of the Lower East Side.
With his deep connections to South African music and politics, Paul Simon was never going to choose any song other than Gabriel’s blunt tribute to the murdered anti-apartheid activist. Simon’s delivery matches the original for poignancy, a sombre plea for justice and humanity simply made by a plaintive voice and softly played 12-string guitar.